The delegation from Beslan steps off the plane from Odessa last week to begin a three week visit in Israel.Eighteen children who were injured and held hostage during the Beslan siege two months ago are in the middle of a three week visit to Israel to heal wounds – both physical and psychological ones.

The children, along with their parents, were invited to Israel by the mayor of the coastal city of Ashkelon. Various Israeli volunteer organizations and companies contributed to make the trip possible.

School No. 1 in Beslan, a Caucasus town near Chechnya, became the scene of a bloodbath in early September after being seized by armed separatists. More than 1,000 parents, teachers and children were held captive in the school’s gymnasium, and more than 330 people, half of them children, died September 3 in the world’s worst hostage disaster when a two-day siege by Russian security forces ended in bomb blasts and shooting.

“After the Beslan attack occurred, Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mahatzari sent a letter of condolences to his fellow mayor in Beslan. He knew the people there weren’t used to dealing with traumatic events like this, and in the letter, he offered to host children from Beslan in Ashkelon for a vacation to help with recovery. He wasn’t thinking only as a mayor, but also as a father,” the city of Ashkelon’s spokesperson Anat Weinstein-Berkovitch told ISRAEL21c.

Accompanied by a doctor and psychologist, the 18 children of Beslan plus 17 parents set sail from Odessa at the beginning of the week on the luxury ship called Yasmin, belonging to Mano Cruises. The City of Ashkelon, the Even Ezer Foundation and the Organization of Olim from the Caucuses financed the trip.

“When they told us that we were leaving for Israel, we were very concerned. Here there is a lot of terror, too, but already on the way we could feel the warmth and love,” said a member of the delelgation according to Ma’ariv.

According to Weinstein-Berkovitch, the group will be based at the French Vacation Village, a Club Med-type complex on the Mediterranean Sea. From there, the children will enjoy trips around the country. Berkovitch said that offers have been pouring in from other Israeli cities, and from companies offering to cover the costs of the trip.

“They’ll be seeing a lot of the country – thanks to the generosity of the Israeli people. Both the Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion municipalities have offered to host them; they’re going to visit the Dead Sea and the Ramat Gan Safari zoo. Everyone’s been great with their offers to get involved,” said Weinstein-Berkovitch.

But sightseeing and relaxation is just one aspect of the visit. What the Israeli organizers hope is that the medical and psychological care that the children will undergo will have a long-lasting impact on aiding their overall recovery.

“They spent their first days at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon where they underwent medical checkups and psychological evaluations. We’re going to provide them with art therapy as well, which we hope will help them communicate, as it’s still difficult for them to verbalize about what happened. We have so much experience in dealing with terror and trauma, so we want to offer our help to the children to enable them to speed their recovery,” said Weinstein-Berkovitch.

The children will also be counseled by specialists from SELAH – the Israel Crisis Management Center, which was founded in 1993 to help immigrants in crisis.

“We sent one of our volunteers – Anna Krakovitch – who was injured herself in an terror attack in Afula 10 years ago – to Odessa to sail back with the group,” Yifat Feldmann,
coordinator of Selah’s support groups, told ISRAEL21c.

“Selah is going to host a weekend retreat for the group during their visit that will combine recreation and therapy sessions. We’re going to some groups with just the children, and another with just the parents. There’ll be some music therapy, and we’ll be having people coming from from the Reidman Center for Alternative healing to lead some workshops in shiatsu and other fields,” she said.

“The children have already participated in a painting workshop with an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, and when we met with them, we saw some very optimistic pictures, which indicated they want to leave their experiences behind them.”

Ashkelon mayor Mahatzari and Moshe Mano of Mano Shipping, who provided the voyage, said that they hope they would be able to provide their guests with three weeks of great experiences that would help them deal with their tragedy.

“As a nation that has so much experience in dealing with terrorism, I believe we have something to offer countries such as Russia regarding the treatment of children who are victims of terror,” Mahatzari told Ma’ariv.

Head of the Beslan delegation, Allan Dubayev, told Ma’ariv that the town of Beslan would like to thank the city of Ashkelon and all those who were involved in bringing the children to Israel. While, the people of Beslan had received many offers of aid in the days following the tragedy, Weinstein-Berkovitch pointed out that the offer to visit Israel was the first one received by Beslan’s mayor from another city.

“There had been official offers of help and aid from governments following the attack, but this was the first time that a city made an offer of a visit. The reaction was positive, and they liked the idea that it was coming from a person – not from a government.

“But what really made the trip become a reality was after a Moscow television station – RTL – sent their correspondent in Israel to Ashkelon to see if the offer was for real, and to report on what was in Ashkelon. So a film crew came to the French Vacation Village, and then they took footage of immigrants to Israel from the Caucasian community dressed in their national costume and wishing the Beslan children speedy recoveries. And the people who saw the report on TV were sincerely touched. They were touched by the people, and the next day, calls began coming in to the Beslan municipality from parents who wanted to bring their children to Israel,” explained Weinstein-Berkovitch.

But Ya’acov Ben-Shimon, the head of the Organization of Olim from the Caucuses, who accompanied the group on their voyage, said that some of the parents and children also had apprehensions about coming to Israel.

They kept asking why are we going to Israel if there’s terror there too?” Ben-Shimon told Ma’ariv. “But we managed to convince them that here they would receive better treatment.”

So, two months after the original offer was made, the 18 children of Beslan descended the steps of the Yasmin into a world where they could momentarily forget their past, and hopefully learn new techniques to learn how to deal with the past and move on to the future.
But for twins David and Arthur Atavkian, aged 12, the reasons for the voyage were much more basic. “We came to Israel because they told us that here we could be a bit happy.”